Opposition Beat: Talking Eagles-Steelers with Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Opposition Beat: Talking Eagles-Steelers with Alan Robinson of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Each week during the 2012 season we're hitting up some of the most knowledgeable people on the Internet when it comes to the Philadelphia Eagles' opponent that particular Sunday. Today we have Alan Robinson, Steelers beat reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

Kulp: Pittsburgh is 1-2 heading into the intrastate matchup, and you wrote their campaign could very well hinge on this game. The team seems to be getting healthy right on cue, with Rashard Mendenhall, James Harrison, and Troy Polamalu all potentially available this week. Assuming they all play, are the Steelers' problems suddenly solved?

Alan Robinson: Not necessarily. The Steelers' problems are across the board, ranging from an inability to run the ball, get to the quarterback or stop teams in the fourth quarter, where they've been outscored 30-13. Harrison and Polamalu are potential game-changers, of course, but Harrison is 34, Polamalu is closing in on 32 and injuries are becoming an issue. Harrison hasn't even practiced on consecutive days since last season. What the Steelers need Harrison to do is bring some pressure some how. They have only five sacks in three games and their 3-4 defensive line is not playing well. But the question is how effective Harrison can be on a knee that has blown up constantly whenever he's tried to push it, and without a full week of practice in nine months. What the Steelers have to hope is this isn;t the mobile Michael Vick they saw in either 2002, when he rallied the Falcons from a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter (the only time that happened against a Bill Cowher team) or in 2006, when he threw four touchdown passes against them.

The Steelers have evolved with the NFL and have featured a pass-first offense for awhile, but their ground attack has been non-existent so far this season. They're 31st in yards per game (65.0), dead last in yards per attempt (2.6) -- as you wrote last week, their worst start in 62 years. Mendenhall appears set to return from a torn ACL, but is that really going to be a cure-all?

He's twice rushed for 1,000 yards, and he might have had another 1,000-yard season if he hadn't gotten hurt against the Browns in the final regular season game last season. Unlike Harrison, Mendenhall has been practicing regularly since the season started, and the main thing is he's better than what they've got. Mike Tomlin was so desperate to find a hot running back that four different backs got carries against the Raiders. Yet the Steelers still haven't had a back gain more than 43 yards in a game this season. If Mendenhall can't do it, their only option might be to bring Jerome Bettis or Franco Harris out of retirement. One factor: This is a contract year for Mendenhall, and he's playing for a deal next year. That's often the recipe for a big season.

James Harrison has averaged nearly 11 sacks per season over the last five years, but has yet to play this season after August knee surgery. Through four weeks, only six teams have notched fewer sacks per game than the Steelers (1.67). As of today, Harrison wasn't listed on the injury report, but you wrote he'll need to get through a full week of practice without swelling. Do you think he will be ready to go, or perhaps only available on a so-called pitch count?

They need him as many snaps as they can get him, and now. They can't afford to lose this game, drop to 1-3 and potentially fall well behind two teams with 4-1 records (the 3-1 Ravens and Bengals both play 1-3 teams this week). It's a very big game for the Steelers so early in the season, and that could be one reason why they can't wait any longer to see what Harrison can do. The key will be if he gets through practice both Wednesday and Thursday; he hasn't gone back-to-back yet this year. He didn't even dress for practice when the knee acted up last Wednesday, before they broke for the bye week, but Tomlin said Harrison had some "intense workouts" over the weekend. If that's intense by James Harrison's definition of intense, that could be a good sign for the Steelers.

Despite their inability to generate a consistent pass rush without Harrison, and even with Polamalu missing two of three games, Pittsburgh is still ranked third in passing yards allowed (190.3 per game). What is their secret?

Mark Sanchez did nothing against them (10-of-27, 138). That skews the numbers; Peyton Manning was 19 of 26 for 253, 2 TDs and couldn't be stopped in the second half in his first game in 20 months; Carson Palmer was  24 of 34 for 209 and 3 TDs and couldn't be stopped in the second half. (Even if Denver stopped him the whole game, limiting the Raiders to 6 points). If LeSean McCoy opens things up for Vick by getting yards early on, Vick is very capable of doing to the Steelers defense what Manning and Palmer did. The difference is those games were on the road, no QB has lit up the Steelers at Heinz Field since Tom Brady in 2010.

The biggest difference between this year and last for the Steelers seems to be new offensive coordinator Todd Haley. In what ways has the offense changed under his direction?

Roethlisberger is motioning a lot more at the line of scrimmage in the no-huddle offense than he did under Bruce Arians, and he's also getting rid of the ball faster than before, when he was constantly looking to get the ball down field to Mike Wallace or to improvise. The receivers are running more underneath routes and are getting targeted more by a quarterback who generally prefers to throw the home-run ball but is strongly being encouraged to be more reluctant to take sacks. Haley wanted to run the ball more effectively at times when the Steelers needed to wind the clock, but the running game's awful start has prevented that. So far, the offense looks much like it did when the Steelers successfully took the ball out of Brady's hands last season at Heinz Field by having Roethlisberger control the clock, throw a lot of safe passes and win the time of possession battle. The Steelers have done that in every game, but it hasn't mattered because -- unlike that Patriots game last season that the Steelers won 25-17 -- they can't keep their opponents out of the end zone when it matters. The Broncos (3 times) and Raiders (5 times) combined to score on each of their eight meaningful second-half possessions.

For the latest news on the Steelers, check out the Tribune-Review sports page.

Flyers-Hurricanes 5 things: Avoiding another bad 1st period

Flyers-Hurricanes 5 things: Avoiding another bad 1st period

Flyers vs. Hurricanes
7 p.m. on CSN, Pregame Live at 6:30

Another season, another slow start for the Flyers.

After dropping their home opener Thursday, the Flyers (1-2-1) welcome the Hurricanes (1-1-2) to the Wells Fargo Center Saturday night looking to snap a three-game losing skid.

Here are five things to know for Game 5 of 82.

1. Slow starts
Through four games, there are a few areas behind the Flyers' lousy start.

The defense continuing to abandon the goaltending and the lackluster power play are near the top of the list, but look no further than the first period of games.

The Flyers have been outscored, 6-1, in first periods through four games. Only Tampa Bay and Vancouver have scored fewer first-period markers with zero. The six first-period goals allowed are tied for the second most in the NHL. Only Calgary has more with seven.

It was an issue last season as well. In 2015-16, the Flyers were outscored, 62-50, in first periods, and the 50 goals ranked in the bottom five of the league. We've talked about slow starts in terms of wins-losses, but this issue extends to first periods too.

While the Flyers have exerted far greater efforts in second periods — leading the league with eight second-period tallies — getting behind so early results in playing from behind, and while resiliency is a trait of winning teams, it's ultimately cost them thus far.

On Saturday night, it doesn't get any easier for the Flyers, either. Carolina is an improved club from last season, which it, too, struggled scoring in opening periods.

That hasn't been the case this season. The 'Canes have outscored opponents, 5-2, in first periods, so it'll be important for the Flyers to come out of the gate with more authority.

2. Read-emption Song
One of the highlights of the early season for the Flyers has been the play of Matt Read.

Read scored his team-leading fourth goal of the season during the Flyers' 3-2 loss to the Ducks on Thursday, dusting off a play that brought back memories of years past.

The 30-year-old got behind the Anaheim defense on the backhand, drove to the net and deposited the puck into the net past John Gibson for a go-ahead score. It was very much a play we saw Read make a few years ago, but has been missing the last two seasons. Read came into training camp early this season hungrier than the previous two seasons, and on Wednesday, general manager Ron Hextall said Read knew he had to get back to the brand of hockey he was playing in 2013-14.

After the game Thursday, Read said his self-evaluation this offseason resulted in him realizing he has to get into the greasy areas to score and avoid playing the outside.

"I think that's something the last two years, I kind of faded away from, I was a perimeter player," Read said Thursday. "It's easy to be a perimeter player if you're going to be making plays and stuff like that. But if you want to score goals, you've got to get into those tough areas, be nasty around the net and battle for loose pucks."

3. Not so special
Special teams so often decide hockey games and it should factor into Saturday's game, too. Carolina comes into the game with a power play and penalty kill both in the top five.

The Hurricanes' man advantage has found twine five times in 16 chances, and their penalty kill has killed off 15 of 16 power plays against. On the other hand, the Flyers have had their struggles on special teams in the early going.

On Thursday night, the Flyers’ PP played a huge role in their loss. They finished 1 for 7 on the man advantage against Anaheim but were 1 for 5 in the second period alone. With Anaheim asking to be beaten, the Flyers couldn’t make the Ducks pay. 

“I thought we had pretty good power plays, our first power play,” Flyers head coach Dave Hakstol said. “I thought we had a good power play during the second, scored a good goal. Had opportunities to stretch to 3-1. It’s disappointing we couldn’t.

“We had one poor power play at the end of the first, where we weren’t able to get set up at all. Our power play was OK. The bigger thing for me is the goal we gave up a few seconds after the last power play in the second period. Those are the type of goals that as a team we can’t give up.”

4. Keep an eye on …
Flyers: It hasn't been the smoothest transition to the NHL for Ivan Provorov, one of two 19-year-olds on the roster. Provorov has shown glimpses, but there have been hiccups, as expected. He had a nightmare of a game in Chicago on Tuesday, and followed it up with a not-so-great effort against Anaheim. But we have to remember he's a teenage rookie. Patience is important. Still, the spotlight should remain on him Saturday. How does he respond after a pair of games in which he's made visible mistakes?

Hurricanes: Carolina has a few young players that are a joy to watch, but let’s highlight defenseman Justin Faulk, who quarterbacks the power play. The 24-year-old has a goal and three assists in four games, with two of the helpers coming on the man advantage. An extremely gifted blueliner, Faulk has scored 15 and 16 goals, respectively, the last two seasons, but that wasn’t enough to get him on Team USA for the World Cup of Hockey. We all know how that panned out.

5. This and that
• Read has 14 points in 20 career games against the Hurricanes.

• Dale Weise was suspended three games for an illegal check to the head of Anaheim defenseman Korbinian Holzer. Roman Lyubimov will replace Weise in the lineup.

• Carolina has killed off its last 11 penalties and has scored at least one power-play goal in three of its four games and two power-play goals in two of its four games.

Matt Read showing Flyers he's done his homework

Matt Read showing Flyers he's done his homework

To Matt Read’s credit, his hockey education never stopped.

Through a second straight subpar season with a murky summer ahead, Read realized he had to change, even on the cusp of his 30th birthday.

It was in late April when the much-maligned winger met with head coach Dave Hakstol and turned in his homework, almost like a student-teacher conference to address troubled grades.

Read vowed he had learned.

Now, nearly six months later, he’s off to the best start of his six-year career.

“He has always been a hard-working guy,” Hakstol said Thursday. “He is a guy that is doing things with a lot of confidence. For me, it started with Reader back in late August. He was in here working early, getting ready, getting prepared and he has carried that through everything he has done so far this year.”

What he has done is rip off a team-high four goals in four games, attacking the net at will and with an undeniable bravado. Really, it’s a Matt Read we haven’t seen before. On Thursday night in the Flyers’ 3-2 home-opening loss, he took a bouncing puck at the blue line, careened toward the net on a sharp, decisive angle and buried his fourth goal with skilled stick work.

“For myself, I’m just trying to play with speed and get to the net,” he said. “I had all the speed and kind of beat the goalie to the back post.”

Last season, the bottom-six forward needed 26 games to score four goals. The year prior, it took 54 games.

So Read studied. What exactly did he grasp?

“Even my linemates, we talk about that if we’re in the offensive zone, we’ve got to get somebody in the blue paint there,” Read said Thursday. “I don’t know the stat, but I think it’s near 90 percent of all goals are within 10 feet of the net. So if you want to score goals, you’ve got to get in that area.”

This offseason, Read looked in the mirror and, with some self-evaluation, knew what had to be done.

“I think that’s something the last two years, I kind of faded away from, I was a perimeter player,” he said. “It’s easy to be a perimeter player if you’re going to be making plays and stuff like that. But if you want to score goals, you’ve got to get into those tough areas, be nasty around the net and battle for loose pucks.”

A new outlook has brought renewed confidence. It’s fair to question whether over the last two seasons if Read ever makes the play he made Thursday. He also knows it’s early and more can be accomplished.

“I feel good out there right now,” Read said. “Hopefully I continue to have good health, keep working out and being strong on my feet. A lot of it has to do with confidence. If you’re shy or not having the confidence, you probably won’t go to that far post.

“I know for myself in the last two years, I know I’ve got to be better. Even going into last year, I knew I had to be better and I did as much I could in the offseason to have a good season and I guess it didn’t go my way, or over the course of the season, it took its toll.”

Read amassed 11 goals and 15 assists in 79 games. The 26 points were a personal low for a full season. Those figures didn’t sit well with Read and general manager Ron Hextall noticed.

“You know what, Reader came in early before camp, he's absolutely worked his tail off,” Hextall said Wednesday. “He understood that he hadn't been as good a player as he should have been last year. He understood it, he took it upon himself, put in a great summer, came in early, got himself in great shape, and he's a hungry hockey player right now and he's been back to where he was.”

When signed by the Flyers in 2011 out of Bemidji State University, it was uncertain where Read projected. Over the past two seasons, he’s fallen to a fourth-line role and was even healthy-scratched last season. More buzz surrounding his status within the organization heated up entering training camp as the Flyers made additions and Travis Konecny blossomed.

Thus far, however, Read has won himself a promotion to the third line because of his early success. He played only 16 power-play seconds Thursday, but if goals keep coming and the Flyers produce more 1-for-7 results on the man advantage, maybe Hakstol increases the 30-year-old’s minutes there, as well.

“When Matt Read is playing like he can play,” Hextall said, “he's a helluva player.”

Not a bad student, too.